Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book recommendation: Cold Sassy Tree

Now that I have started doing book recommendations, I think from time to time I'll mention particularly good books (in my opinion) read earlier.

Since Doris and I have joined the "Read and Feed" book discussion group here in Corvallis, we have read a number of books that we never would have run into otherwise. Some of them have been outstandingly good, others perhaps outstanding in a different way!

One of my favorites is Olive Ann Burns novel Cold Sassy Tree. On the cover of our paperback edition a reviewer claims it is "A hilarious and passionate book . . . . One of the best portraits of small town southern life ever written." Although I cannot speak to its authenticity regarding small town southern life, never having lived in such a town, I can agree that it is hilarious.

As a model of good writing it is one that I would require students to read if I were teaching a course on how to write novels. (Not that I am equipped to teach such a course; I have written one manuscript for a novel, Who Killed Richard Nixon, but it was so dreadful that it never got anywhere when I tried to find an agent who would work with it.) The beginning of Cold Sassy Tree is excellent, grabbing the attention of the reader and making it nearly impossible for anyone who has read the first paragraph to put the book down. And the rest of the book lives up to the expectations generated at the beginning.


If I have provoked anyone's curiosity about Who Killed Richard Nixon, let me summarize the scenario: The story is laid in a "diverging and then reconverging" parallel universe in which Richard Nixon's people in Illinois managed to steal more votes there in 1960 than John F. Kennedy's people could, Nixon took the Illinois electoral votes and therefore won the presidency. He was assassinated while giving a speech at the University of Toledo Law School, Toledo, Ohio, on November 22, 1963. When he keeled over clutching his chest while giving his talk, everyone at first thought he'd suffered a heart attack, but it soon transpired that a spring gun firing poisoned darts had been cleverly hidden in the microphone he was using and set off by radio remote control from some distance.

25 years later they have still not figured out who did it. Two rather stupid reporters from the Ann Arbor newspaper (40 miles or so north of Toledo) decide they are tired of living in a backwater town like Ann Arbor and need to pull off a big story so they can go work for the New York Times or the Washington Post. They set out to find the killer, undergo various adventures, but at the end never do find out who killed Nixon.

In this novel Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's running mate in 1960, serves as president until 1968, when John F. Kennedy is elected. Kennedy later is forced to resign the presidency because of some kind of sexual indiscretion and at the time of the novel is living in disgrace in Panama. Meanwhile there is a "Horatio Alger" myth about the martyred Nixon, analogous to the Camelot myth surrounding Kennedy's memory in our part of the universe. Totally disgusting, of course!

I forget how this happens, but somehow Ronald Reagan gets elected president in 1980 in this parallel universe, and the two universes re-converge from then on to now.

I still think this was a pretty neat scenario, but unfortunately I did a crummy job of writing it up as a novel. But some people think that everyone's first novel is always terrible, so maybe I have gotten my bad one out of the way and if I try another one it might work out better.

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